Susan Howe was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1937 and grew up in nearby Cambridge. After completing her school education she travelled to Ireland, her mother’s native country, and worked as an assistant and played minor parts at the Dublin Gate Theatre. In 1961 she studied painting at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts and eventually settled in New York. Here she moved within the circles of avant-garde artists and began to combine her paintings with lists of words.
Her first volume of poetry »Hinge Picture« was published in 1974. It contained experimental and extremely formalized collages of words and quotations which alluded to biblical, mythical and ma gic al references. As with most of her twenty-plus volumes, it was revised and republished years later as part of a collection. The fragments of prose in »Frame Structures«, which is used as a preface to one of these collections and also gave it its name, blend together autobiographical snapshots and historical aspects of her family and country. In different ways both works show Howe’s distinctive poetics – a kind of lyrical exploration of history. The aim is not to communicate historical truth, but rather to approach the elusive phenomenon of the past. The fragmented speech, confined by its formality, absorbs echoes of history without making them conform to a homogenous whole.
In this respect, the image of an almost illegible manuscript used by Howe in the volume of poetry »Pierce-Arrow« (1999) is paradigmatic. In the book, photos of the neglected estate of the logician and philosopher Charles S. Peirce are integrated, his ordering of language showing the chaos of his thoughts. Howe’s poems, organised into blocks of text in the centre of the page, echo Peirce’s way of working alongside details from his biography. Surprising cross-references open the text up to aspects of scientific history, literature and myth. The unsaid is an essential component of this lyrical language just as distances and gaps between words and text blocks are a vital element of the overall image of the poetry.
Howe has also published two widely acclaimed works on literary theory. »My Emily Dickinson« (1985) engages with one of the most important influences of the poet. »The Birth-mark« (1993), a deconstruction of »wilderness« in American literary history, was chosen as the International Book of the Year by the »Times Literary Supplement«. Howe has been given many other awards, among which are two American Book Awards from the Before Columbus Foundation and a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1999 the poet was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a year later she became Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Howe taught English at different universities until 2006, the most recent being the University of Buffalo, New York.
She currently lives in Guilford, Connecticut.
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